Keanu Reeves has logged more than 35 pictures on his resume, yet I still can’t get him in focus as an actor. I’m not talking about his fine form, which I can clearly see and appreciate — the exotic eyes, the dancer’s limbs, the characteristic expression of serene blankness hinting at either deep secrets or maybe only serene blankness. But the essence of Keanu, his own private I-dunno — ah, that is the mystery on which millions meditate: Is there a there there? River’s Edge, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, My Own Private Idaho, Speed, and The Devil’s Advocate lead us to believe there is; Much Ado About Nothing, Johnny Mnemonic, and A Walk in the Clouds all point to No. Little Buddha asks, Huh?
The Matrix suggests that a computer has taken the measure of the man — now 34 and maturing into even greater, timeworn beauty — and has calculated that the most efficient use of the guy, with the least wear and tear on his dramatic abilities, is as a piece of handsome machinery, a morph of Speed’s action hero and Johnny Mnemonic’s brain-scan man. In this flashy sci-fi thriller, underwritten and overdirected by Andy and Larry Wachowski, the brothers who made the scenically kinky lesbo-noir caper Bound, Reeves plays a hacker called Neo, who lives in a grim future disguised as the present. It’s a future in which daily life is actually an elaborate construct controlled by artificially intelligent computers, i.e., the Matrix. In classic sci-fi form, the rabble don’t realize that they’re blips in a global virtual-reality game. Following similar genre convention, evil, Matrix-made agents wear the dark sunglasses and suits of Secret Service men and purse their lips in ritualized expressions of humorlessness.
But a group of freedom fighters want to bust loose, like rebels in a commercial for Macintosh computers. These individualists in sexy black-leather couture (one, played by former model Carrie-Anne Moss, ideal for marketing as a somber Matrix Barbie doll) report to a cryptic Obi-Wanish guru, Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne). And Morpheus — a paranoid but benevolent leader — has identified Neo as The One. The One what? Handsome cyber-Buddha, I guess, who, if he accepts his fate (and acquires the right wardrobe and training), can free humanity from the tyranny of the soulless Matrix.
In fact, the real soullessness here is built into the production, a polished adaptation of Hong Kong-style filmmaking that, with its cast of depressive characters, allows for little Hong Kong-style joy. With stunt work supervised by veteran choreographer Yuen Wo Ping (whose father worked with Jackie Chan) and groundbreaking special effects, The Matrix sells itself as a gaudy chopsocky concoction with expensive Hollywood action details — a blast of Holly-Kong glitz that never approaches the stylistic cohesiveness of, say, John Woo’s Face/Off or the charisma of that film’s propulsive star John Travolta.
With the aid of invisible wires and nifty camera work, the cast shimmies up walls and flips through the air as bullets fly. Bodies absorb all sorts of assaults and mutilation, then reassemble themselves whole. But Fred Astaire got there first, dancing on the ceiling nearly half a century ago in Royal Wedding. Terminator 2 reconstituted evil in human form over and over again. The same cinematic advances that destroyed the White House in Independence Day diminish the impact of elegant stunt work in a story with nothing more to care about.
Reeves and Fishburne can flip and scramble all they want. But to an audience inured to spectacle, flipping and scrambling demonstrations don’t raise the pulse in this convoluted yet rudimentary yarn. The moral of The Matrix, I think, is that people who spend too much time staring at the computer screen and not enough time enjoying healthy physical activity like kung fu are susceptible to brainwash. Of course, if we rabble understood more about what moves Keanu Reeves to express emotion — any emotion — we wouldn’t be wasting so much time jacked into the Internet, poring over Reeves websites, looking for clues to his Buddha-like passivity. C+